Minnesota Photographer Captures Motherly Wonder
Make fun of mergansers all you want. One industrious Minnesota hen has become an online sensation for her incredible matriarchal prowess.
Mama Merganser, as she's been dubbed, gained fame this past week when photos of her leading 76 ducklings ran on social media and many print and online news outlets, including People, Smithsonian, Fox News and The New York Times. The craze began when nature photographer Brent Cizek made an astounding discovery on Lake Bemidji, Minnesota, about 150 miles northwest of Duluth.
In a July 13 interview with Audubon.org, Cizek said he was heading for shore in a small plastic boat when he noticed the merganser hen with more than 50 ducklings.
I probably shot 50 pictures, and I was just praying that one was going to turn out sharp because the waves were so strong it was nearly impossible to even keep them in the frame, Cizek said in the article. Luckily enough, just one picture turned out.
During a subsequent trip to the lake, Cizek counted 76 ducklings behind Mama Merganser. That prompted a mystery: The hen could not have incubated and hatched that many ducklings — the Cornell Lab of Ornithology said the average clutch size of a merganser is six to 17 — so how did she come to care for so many youngsters?
Bob Duchesne, who writes a birding column for the Bangor Daily News, told Smithsonianmag.com the hen was likely leading a crèche, a zoological term that describes animals caring for young that are not their own.
It is most typical among birds that breed colonially and whose eggs hatch at roughly the same time, he said in the piece, adding that creching lets young birds gather into a large crowd, which can increase their odds of survival.
Dave Rave, an area wildlife manager with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, told The New York Times the hen is probably a matriarchal female with previous experience raising broods. He's seen merganser crèches of up to 50 ducklings but acknowledged the 76-bird brood was unusually large.
Meanwhile, Cizek is enjoying capturing Mama Merganser's story and sharing it with the world.
I love the story that these photos tell, he said on his Facebook page.
If you see a 70-something flock of mergansers migrating this fall, take a moment to appreciate it. Mama Merganser is probably leading her flock south.